The most famous art museum in Europe, and perhaps in the world, is the Musée du Grand Louvre. This is the largest palace in the world, begun in 1200 and finished in 1870. Before becoming a royal residence, it was a fortress. Construction as a royal residence was begun in the 16th century by the French King François Ier. François patronized the great artists of his time, among them Leonardo da Vinci. This is one reason why several of Leonardo's paintings, including the Mona Lisa, are found in the Louvre.
In 1680, when the French court moved from Paris to Versailles, the Louvre began to deteriorate. Groups of artists and bohemians camped in the empty galleries and stovepipes poked through the colonnade. In 1750, a plan was made to demolish the building, but fortunately it never happened.
The modern Louvre, as it appears today, was built in 1852 by Louis Napoléon (Napoléon III). He devoted 25 million francs to this work. Unfortunately, in 1871, during the violence of the Paris Commune, the nearby Tuileries Palace (the royal residence of the period) was set on fire. During the Third Republic, the damaged parts were rebuilt, the ruins of the Tuileries were cleared away, and the Louvre was restored as a museum, becoming a repository for some of the greatest art treasures of Europe.
Today, the Louvre houses seven museums that together constitute probably the most important artistic collection in the world.
The latest addition to the Louvre, the Pyramide, was designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, and provides a spectacular modern entrance. You take the escalator down into the building, complete with ticket office, underground bookshops and cafes, from where corridors lead to the various wings of the museum.
Since visitors have varying amounts of time to spend inside, the following is a mini-guide to just nine of the greatest treasures. The extraordinary variety of works and art periods contained in the Louvre is well represented here.
Vénus de Milo The statue was found in 1820 on the Greek island of Milos. This famous Greek masterpiece dates back to about 100 B.C., and has become a popular symbol of idealized beauty. How her arms were originally positioned will never be known. Not even the hypothetical poses that art historians have worked out make any sense. An aura of mystery will surround her. Notice the great skill and sensitivity to the human body and soul displayed in this beautiful statue.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace This work was discovered in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace. It was found broken into nearly 200 separate pieces. The pieces were brought to the Louvre and the statue carefully reconstructed in its original pose. The figure represents a sea battle, but exactly which one is uncertain and may never be known. Most historians date this work to the second century B.C., although at first it was believed to date from even earlier. The pedestal under the statue represents the prow of a ship, and the figure was set up on a cliff as a memorial to a sea victory, which could possibly have been the defeat by the Rhodians of Antiochus III in the 2nd century B.C. The sculptor's genius is seen in the sea wind rustling her cloak, and the salt spray dampening her clothing, causing it to cling to her body.
Mona Lisa The single most famous painting in the world. This portrait was painted in about 1504 by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). King François I acquired it and hung it at the Palace of Fontainebleau. The Mona Lisa represents a great landmark in the history of portrait painting. The presence of a living and breathing model was now felt, instead of a stiff impersonal figure such as was found in Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings. The use of light and shadow (an effect known as chiaroscuro) gives the portrait a real sense of depth. Thse shadows are so subtle that her mouth appears to be quivering and her eyes seem to follow you around the room. Scholars, as well as generations of viewers and students, have tried to figure he meaning of this enigmatic painting, and explain the strange haunting feeling it gives them.
Inspiration of the Poet This is a work by the great French master Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). This painting sums up the classical view of poetry as being an inspiration of the gods. Apollo is the central figure, messenger of the gods and the source of poetry and prophecy. He seems almost to be pointing out the very words he wants the poet to use. To the left is Calliope, he Muse of epic poetry, who stands in a classical pose like a Greek statue. The figure to the right is the poet himself. He is about receive a laurel crown from one of the two infant Cupids. Most art historians believe the poet to be Virgil. A dreamlike mood pervades the painting, reflecting the Platonic view that poetry is composed in a trance-like state of inspiration in which the gods speak to us.
The Coronation of Napoleon This vast canvas is one of the masterpieces of the artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) who became the official painter and chronicler of Napoleon when he was in power. This work was painted in 1804, a commission to commemorate Napoleon's consecration as Emperor of France. It is an amazing work, measuring 20 by 30 feet, which allowed David to include many of the dignitaries in Napoleon's court. David prepared numerous sketches, paintings and even a model where he arranged dolls in costume. When the time came to finish the final painting, David faced a problem. Napoleon crowned himself at the ceremony, and to depict this would have been offensive to the Church. So David chose to portray the moment after the coronation when Napoleon placed the crown on his wife Josephine's head. The scene takes place in Notre-Dame Cathedral. Standing to Josephine's left are some of the military marshals, and in the balcony behind them sits Maria- Laetitia, Napoleon's mother. She was not actually present at the ceremony, but David was forced to alter the painting again and again to suit Napoleon's wishes.
The Bather The female nude has long been a staple of western art, but this painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) is among the most exquisite of the genre. Throughout his long career, Ingres was obsessed with the nude female—bathers, concubines, odalisques, luxurious harems, all in exotic settings. He was fascinated to read two letters written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey, published in 1764: "There were 200 women...The sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies, all being in a state of nudity...yet there was not a wanton smile or immodest gesture among them." Ingres was a classical painter, in spite of the romanticism of this scene; most of his contemporaries dismisssed him as hopelessly dry and academic.
Ingres' relationship to the nude was psychologically curious. For him, the nude body did not prompt erotic feelings, but an intellectual rhapsody of order. The Bather remains one of the definitive nudes in the history of art, and a perfect illustration of Ingres' passion for classical form.
Liberty leading the People This work by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) describes the three-day mini-revolution in Paris in 1830, which was mainly conducted by the Parisian middle classes against the regime of King Charles X. Delacroix was not personally involved, but was inspired by the drama of the events. He himself was an aristocrat, and he disliked mob violence. Yet, as a "parlor revolutionary," he saw in the uprising the raw material for a dramatic presentation, an allegory. The depiction of the mythical goddess Liberty as a flesh-and-blood female thrusting herself forward over the barricades has intrigued generations of viewers. Delacroix was very much a combination of classicist and romantic. The staging may use classical elements, but the drama is fundamentally romantic: the canvas pulsates with motion, action and energy.
The Raft of the Medusa In 1816, the French ship Medusa was shipwrecked on the way to Senegal. One hundred and forty-nine survivors were set adrift on a raft, with nothing but casks of wine for nourishment. The frigate Argus found the raft after many days, but only 15 seamen were still alive. Five of these men died later in hospital. Tales of cannibalism began to circulate, as well as the hideous story of men dying slowly in a state of drunkenness. The episode became a national scandal in France, as the government was accused of having appointed an incompetent officer to command the Medusa. The painter Théodore Géricault was both thrilled and horrified by the drama of the events, and chose for his painting the moment when the survivors caught sight of the ship heading to rescue them. The sheer size of the canvas commands the viewer to stop and be drawn into the scene. Géricault died at the age of 33, and the Raft of the Medusa remains his most famous painting. Many art historians consider his premature death one of the great tragedies of 19th-century French art history.
The Painter's Studio By Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). With Courbet, French painting moves beyond romanticism to realism. Courbet championed a rather mystifying personal and artistic ideology he called "realism." He subtitled this particular painting "a real-life allegory," and submitted it to the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1855. When the Exhibition rejected it, Courbet built a hut nearby which he called the "Pavilion of Realism," and in it he exhibited 40 of his own paintings, including this one. At the center is the artist himself, working on a landscape. A nude model stands beside him, while a child looks on. To the right of the artist are representatives of Courbet's own middle class, whom he calls "friends, lovers of the world of the arts." To his left are people from all walks of life, most of them dirty and shabby in appearance. The atmosphere here is gloomy, and the characters tend to recede into the background. They don't stand out as individuals as Courbet's friends do on the other side of the picture. The painting lives on not because of Courbet's eccentric ideas about the nature of art, but because of the rich panorama of the work, its "slice-of-life" directness in depicting the humbler members of society, which in the art of the mid-19th century was a revolutionary novelty.
After Courbet and his realist painting, the next artistic movement of profound importance in French art was Impressionism. And for that, you have to go the next museum, housed nearby in a converted railway station on the Left Bank of the River Seine. The Musée d'Orsay...
The Building The building itself is the first of the nine treasures, and certainly the most attention-grabbing. Built in 1900, this once dilapidated railway station barely escaped demolition, and has risen to become one of the city's most important attractions since opening as a museum on December 1, 1986. The inside contains high-tech architecture, while preserving a grandiose exterior. The immense vaulted ceiling and rows of arches along each side are typical of buildings that rose during the Belle-Epoque at the end of the last century. The symmetrical proportions of the building, and the quality of the light that streams through its many windows, provide the perfect setting for these art treasures. The Musée d'Orsay is devoted to French works of art between 1848 and 1914. In effect, it carries on where the Louvre leaves off. Sculpture is also well represented, as are all other art forms. Photography is present from its inception in 1839. Both layout and lighting are astonishing, and every nook and cranny of the former railway station have been used in an imaginative and innovative way.
Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait de l'Artiste (Self-Portrait) Van Gogh (1853-1890) didn't start painting until he was 27 years old. Ten years later, he committed suicide, but during those ten years, he produced work in pen, ink and paint which commands the awe of viewers worldwide. By all accounts, he was an unpleasant man: small, ill-humored, stubborn, longing for affection and tortured by religious confusion. He was alone for much of the time, and devoted all his energy to painting. He sometimes worked from sketches and subjects, but more often created directly on canvas. He would mash his paint directly on to the canvas in a fury. He would then spread it around in gobs. He worked continuously as if he were possessed, stopping only when he felt faint for lack of food. He lived for a time in Arles with Paul Gauguin, his complete opposite in every way: looks, manner and artistic vision. They quarreled at one point, and van Gogh cut off his own right ear. Soon after, he began to suffer seizures and hallucinations, and had to be hospitalized. It was during this period that he painted this self-portrait. It is ironic that the figure seems so placid and healthy. The fiery blue eyes radiate a steely vision of purpose and strength, with few hints of the inner torment that lay beneath the surface. Notice the direction he's facing: his earlier self-portraits invariably looked the other way. Because of his missing ear, perhaps?
Van Gogh had only two exhibitions of his work during his career, both held in small Paris restaurants. Six months before he died, he was paid a trivial amount of money for the only painting he ever sold. And that was to another artist. The greatest irony of all is that less than 100 years later, a relatively obscure canvas of his was sold at auction for $53 million.
JEAN-FRANÇOIS MILLET: Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners) Millet (1814-1875) has many paintings on display in the d'Orsay. In his prime, he was very popular with the public but vilified by art critics and members of the academy. As a man unhappy with the hustle and bustle of Paris, Millet moved to the small village of Barbizon near Fontainebleau, where he and several other painters (including Daubigny, Dupré and Théodore Rousseau) worked directly from nature. The son of a farmer, Millet extolled the virtues of hard-working peasants. In Les Glaneuses (1857), the figures take on heroic proportions compared to their surroundings. It was just this effect of larger-than-life symbolism that infuiated academicians. As one of them put put it, they were "offended and disturbed by paintings of men who don't change their linens" Yet in the century that followed, hundreds of thousands of printed copies of Millet's work adorned the walls of schoolrooms and private homes alike.
EDGAR DEGAS: L'Absinthe or Au Café Edgar Degas (1843-1917) is still considered by many to be the aristocrat among the Impressionists. Degas was a fine draftsman who maintained a personal detachment in his work to exploit the "momentary effect"—the precise instant in which a subject's personality is revealed. His painting L'Absinthe (1876) is an excellent example of this concept at work. Degas, who, like other Impressionists, was familiar with the new art of photography, tried to emulate the realistic snapshot. In his later years, he worked exclusively in pastels to get the precise effects he wanted of color, tone and line simultaneously. His depictions of ballerinas, also on exhibit here, are fascinating to look at.
PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR: Les Baigneuses (The Bathers) Renoir (1841-1919) was a robust man, devouring life and putting the same spirit into his paintings. The happy couples chatting and dancing in his large work, Bal au Moulin de la Galette (1876), as well as the young girls in Jeunes Filles au Piano (1862), are lively examples. In his early years, he painted women with pink skin tones which seemed to radiate light from within. He gave them full figures and coy expressions that exuded sensuality. He was a rarity—an artist who actually enjoyed having his works referred to as "pretty."
After he married and assumed the responsibilities of a family, Renoir for a time rejected the frivolity of Impressionism. His style of painting tightened up and grew heavy as he attempted to bring classical values into his pictures. Fortunately, this departure didn't last long and he went back to using a freer brush and more vivid colors. But when we look at Les Baigneuses (1919), his last painting, it is almost as if he had thrown away the previous forty years of his work. By this time Renoir was so crippled by rheumatism that he could work only from a wheelchair with the brush strapped to his arm.
JAMES WHISTLER: Arrangement en gris et noir (Arrangement in Gray and Black) This work was done by an American, James McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts. He and several other non-French artists are represented in the d'Orsay collection.
After being dismissed from West Point in 1855, Whistler (1834-1903) came to Paris to study painting. For several years he tried to get his works exhibited by the academy. Upset by the failure of his efforts, he moved to London. This immensely popular and rather sentimental painting, which came to be popularly known as Whistler's Mother, he insisted on calling Arrangement in Gray and Black because, in his words, "that's what it is."
Whistler was strongly influenced by Japanese ink paintings with their simple lines and blocks of color, and he used a subtle palette of grays and blacks in reverent imitation of the technique.
PAUL CÉZANNE: Nature Morte, Pommes et Oranges (Still Life with Apples and Oranges) Although Cézanne (1839-1906) counted many of the Impressionists among his friends, he himself did not belong to this movement. Cézanne worked directly with his subject; he never used sketches or memory, as did most Impressionists. He also believed that all natural objects could be reduced to their inherent geometrical forms: cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones etc. He carved a niche for himself by declaring "I do not want to reproduce nature, I want to recreate it." By his constant investigation of color, light, distortion and multiple viewing angles, Cézanne took the first tentative steps towards Cubism and modern abstract art.
EDOUARD MANET: Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) When this painting was first shown in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, people came to laugh at or be scandalized by this work by Manet (1832-1883). Listed in the catalog as Le Bain (The Bath), it was immediately dubbed by a less gracious title "Luncheon on the Grass," as art lovers and critics alike were appalled by its immorality. Classical paintings had often included nude women surrounded by fully-dressed men, but here the difference was that the men are in contemporary rather than classical costume, and the classical proportions are distorted by enlarging the figures. He was an artist who believed in "art for art's sake," trying to make the viewer see beyond the subject.
GEORGES SEURAT: Le Cirque (The Circus) The technique used here is "pointilisme," and is based partly on the theory that pure colors juxtaposed will be optically mixed by the viewer into more luminous tints than could be mixed on a palette. All you do is follow the formula: simplify each form into its silhouette, assemble the silhouettes into some sort of composition filling the canvas, and then just fill everything in with dots. Basically, Seurat (1859-1891) did just that. The difference is that when he did it, it was art. His most impressive work, La Grande Jatte (not in the museum), took two years to cover more than 60 square feet of canvas with tiny dots.
On the other hand, it is hard to know just how to accept Le Cirque (1891). Seurat died of pneumonia before this work was finished. Because of this, it is possible to view this work as an example of how a pointiliste piece was created. Seurat had completed the first two parts of his formula—the silhouettes had been designed and placed. He was in the process of putting in the dots. He had only completed the reds, oranges and yellows, and was working on the blues when he died.
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